Monday, March 28, 2016

How do you research your fiction?

Dear Kim,

Thank you for the note about Book Reviews. You are right; they are so important for the health of a book, and a way to support other writers. Today I have a slightly different take on a book review for you. This post wasn't meant to be a book review. I really just wanted to chat with you about research in fiction. But a review of a gripping book just appeared. You'll see.

I was at the Foundation last week and a fellow young adult author was sitting with me. We got to talking about our "process" in writing genre fiction. While she said the Internet was the only tool that she used for research, I think she discounted all of the hours she spent drinking in pop culture, eye-binging Dexter, and reading the many fictional worlds that she and I talked over.

My research method is much like the above when I'm writing a first draft: internet, pop culture, reading for pleasure; however, when I'm in draft-percolation-mode, I dig for more content to influence my next draft(s).

While writing my first draft I let my characters (and eventually the outline) guide me to the end. (I wrote a bit about that process here.) And in the end...There are words. (Not all the words are great. I can change them.) There are also subplots. (Not all of the subplots are evenly woven. I can repair them.) There are characters. (Not all characters change. I can develop them.) I know a first draft is just the first step. I like what comes next. It is the point in my process when I rationalize extra Netflix time, more reading, and more internet. It is time to research.

For my book, Killer: A Love Story, about a school shooter, I wrote the first draft quickly. The characters haunted me, so I tried to race right into revisions. It didn't work. I hadn't stuck to my "process". No letting the draft sit idle for some time (the old "into the desk" reference, if you will) while I researched.

You remember that first revision, Kim. It sucked. The characters were no richer in that revision than they were in draft #1. Nothing to do but put the book away until I took time to research.

That's what I've been up to lately. Research for Killer. I read Sue Klebold's memoir: A Mother's Reckoning; Phil Chalmer's Inside the Mind of a Teen Killer; a few articles, most notably, Inside the Race to Stop the Next Mass Shooter; and reread/listened to some fiction on school shootings. (Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult; Shooter by Walter Dean Myers; Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick.) I watched Season Two of American Crime, in real time each week, and it felt like taking a class in plot and grief. Most recently I read This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp. Finishing this book was the last piece of research I needed. It left me hollowed, yet ready to return to my own Killer.

Nijkamp's story took us into the heart of a school shooting. Multiple narrators told about the 54 minutes on campus with the shooter. What I appreciated most was that we heard from four student bystanders, not the shooter's point of view. We were given enough information about the shooter to make the story believable, but not so much as to make it a story about him. Instead we learned about loyalty, love, and hope, even in the darkest of circumstances.
While some of the story was difficult to read (as one might expect), Nijkamp made us care about the four narrators-- about how their lives wove together and about whether or not they would survive the harrowing day. We felt the intensity. We tried to comprehend the choices. We cried alongside all four as they watched friends and family die.

It seems wrong to say this book (really any book about school shootings) is "good". I will say that This Is Where It Ends handles the topic with great dignity and I appreciate Nijkamp's storytelling.

My Killer is different from any of the shooters I researched. However, I know my time spent researching-- the reading, watching, and listening, will deepen the story I want to tell. Research in fiction informs the story's believability, but more importantly, I think, this type of research readies writers' minds to produce richer work. 

I'll pass along This Is Where It Ends when I see you on Wednesday.